Last week, at the ASU-GSV Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, Minerva gave us a video peek at how their online-small-seminar technology will work. They announced the addition of a second section to the founding class, due to high numbers of qualified applicants. And we learned that the founding cohort, in sophomore year, will move from their dorms on California Street in San Francisco’s Nob Hill, to dorms in Buenos Aires and Berlin.
I had a conversation with Minerva's CEO, Ben Nelson, at the Summit. We talked about the challenges of building an elite university, the admission innovations Minerva implemented, and how their pedagogy and technology entwine.
I asked him flat out: How do you create prestige?
We don’t. Universities that pursue prestige, we think, do so destructively. We don't create prestige so much as we deliver on a brand promise.
We say, here is what we are going to create. Our goal at Minerva is to create the world’s most effective university. We select the students with the highest possible potential, and put them through a program that develops that potential. That is the brand promise.
If you deliver on that promise, you attract the best students and faculty, and deliver the best outcomes. That's how a brand survives and thrives, by delivering on the promise. This is how most of the world operates.
When you focus on prestige, you don't care about the delivery. Instead, you care about the gloss. At Minerva, we are not trying to optimize prestige. We are optimizing on the delivery of our brand's promise.
What innovations did you implement in your admissions process?
The biggest innovation has to do with having the sole goal of admitting students with the highest raw human potential. When that is the sole criteria, the nature of the process changes.
The admissions process at universities is mostly about meeting a host of goals. They are curating for a whole class. A class curated for football, for acapella groups and marching bands, for fifty states, for a certain percentage of foreign students, and to satisfy donors. Many institutions claim to be ‘need blind’ but their processes advantage the rich. They say they are need-blind, but then they use the SAT in their selection process. The SAT is a wonderful way to advantage the rich.
We don’t use the SAT. Every time we ask a student to write something, we ask them to do so on-camera. They can't pay a consultant to help them answer the question because they are asked in real time.
When you don't advantage the rich, guess what. Your class doesn't look like predominately rich Americans.
For us, the beauty of our admissions is that no one fights for a spot. You are either above the bar and you’re in, or you're below the bar and you're not. When you take out the admission curation, those who were above the bar, as we suspected, were well-distributed.
How was the pedagogy developed? Is it based on theories presented in Founding Dean Stephen Kossyln's recent book, Top Brain Bottom Brain?
Steven is remarkable. Despite being one of the world's experts on the brain, he's an empirical scientist first. He and the faculty thoroughly reviewed the literature on the science of learning. Every aspect of Minerva's program is based on what we know from learning research. It’s pervasive.
As an example, a class in Minerva, the cohort that goes together from city to city, is 150 people. That's because of the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number is the largest size a group can be where everyone can know everyone else. More than that, then group interactions actually decrease. The group collapses into a cluster of smaller groups.
Another example is the size of our seminars. They are 15-19 students. Again this is based on the literature. There is some disagreement about the numbers, but this range is deeply supported by the research.
Minerva fashioned a program no one has ever seen before, all based on everything out there in the science of learning. We will iterate and improve. We will get feedback from students who are helping us found this university together. We will add to the science.
Most ed tech companies talk first about their technology. They are engineer-forward companies. Minerva hasn't said as much about their learning platform. We’re curious.
Our technology is among the most incredible things we are doing. But, Minerva is not about the technology. It's about the pedagogy. But without the technology, we can't pull it off!
Generally, people see online learning as a crutch—a tolerable substitute for offline instruction, with the advantage of being less expensive to scale. They assume offline is better, but you can still manage to learn online. Minerva is NOT using online learning as a crutch. For us, offline is a crutch! So much is possible when you take learning online.
On our platform students type their questions in real time. Professors adapt instruction based on student understandings revealed by their questions. Professors choose not just who got the right answer, but show interesting wrong answers that expose misconceptions. Professors poll on the fly. Students debate one another on camera, annotate notes for all to see, and break out into online groups. During office hours professors can replay specific videos of students, pointing out what’s effective in their work and communication, and what’s not. You can't do this offline! You can't replay and learn from hearing yourself.
Over the last year when I talk to audiences about Minerva and list the virtues--the curriculum, the faculty, the global residential component, the $10,000 tuition, the life-long student support--by the time I get to the technology, people are sold. But, the technology is among the most incredible things we are doing.
Did you have problems overcoming the flawed reputations of previous online colleges?
That hasn’t presented any obstacles. The obstacle is “newness.” But even so, Minerva received 2500 applications from students in 96 countries. Many students and parents saw the opportunity. But, without the newness, we would have seen even greater numbers. That will change over time. Some parents whose kids wanted desperately to attend, and for whom Minerva would have been exactly right, didn’t want to even engage. Not to take a look, not to engage and evaluate Minerva’s opportunity—well, that’s not rational.
The Minerva Project is impressive. They aren't just tinkering with higher education innovation. They’re overhauling the college experience, and price, for the world’s top students. Can Ben Nelson deliver on the brand promise? I wouldn't bet against him.
by Ava Arsaga, 4/30/2014 Ava Arsaga is the Founder and Editor of EdBizWatch as well as Parent Cortical Mass, a blog with the mission to help parents get more informed about learning and education.